This year, the Protestant movement is 500 years old. While the disunity of the universal church today is lamentable, it is right to celebrate the fresh light that was shed on (or rather, given by) the gospel in the 16th century. We long for the day when Christ’s body is a fully united, mature man (Eph. 4:13), but we do not seek unity at the expense of truth. One of the truths insisted upon by the Protestant reformers, among the five solas of the Reformation, is sola scriptura, the truth that Scripture alone is the final, infallible authority for faith and practice in the church.
Contrary to the classic Roman Catholic two-source scheme of authoritative revelation (Scripture alongside unwritten Apostolic Tradition preserved by the teaching magisterium), Protestants affirm Scripture alone (defined as the 66 books of the Protestant canon) as the only “rule” of faith. We believe there is much value in the traditions of the church, and we commend the study of the writings of our fathers in the faith, but all must be tested and filtered by Scripture itself. Further, we believe in the authority of church elders who come together to guide and guard the church—on local, regional, and national levels, we believe, as Presbyterians. Yet again, Scripture is above all, and the authority of church officers is “ministerial” (that of spiritual servants) and “declarative” (derived from and limited by the imperatives of Scripture).
One of the presuppositions, or necessary correlates, of sola scriptura, is the doctrine of the “perspicuity” of Scripture. This refers to the clarity of divine revelation. We believe that the Holy Spirit-inspired text of the Old and New Testaments present a fundamentally clear message from God to His covenant people, revealing the terms of His covenant of grace in Christ. In other words, while the Westminster Confession of Faith acknowledges that, “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all”, still, “…those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understand of them” (WCF I:VII, my emphases).
Rather than necessarily relying on an official and ultimately authoritative teaching office in the church, the ordinary man may read the words of Holy Scripture for himself and understand the basic meaning of the gospel of Christ. He may not understand every jot and tittle of Paul’s epistles or of the Minor Prophets, but the way of salvation by faith in Christ shines brightly and unmistakably in the pages of the Bible. The sovereign work of the Spirit is surely required to open the eyes of sinners to understand such things savingly, but in terms of the objective accessibility of the main content of Scripture, no popes or councils are needed. The Bible, and especially the New Testament message of the Christ who has come, is revelation from God, not a “hiding-away” of a secret divine message that is only unlocked by the higher-ups of an elaborate sacerdotal system.
This is why, when Paul wrote to the Ephesians (or perhaps, originally, to a group of churches that included the Ephesian church), he spoke to them of how the mystery of Christ had been revealed to him by the Spirit, and that whenever they read his letter, they too “…can understand [Paul’s] insight into the mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit” (Eph. 3:4-5). The “mystery” hidden for long ages—that Jew and Gentile would be one in Christ when He appeared, having equal access to God, God’s manifold wisdom thus being glorified in the sight even of angels and demons (Eph. 3:6-12)—this mystery is now out in the open.
The fullness of grace and truth revealed in Christ is unique, but even before His ascension and the outpouring of the Spirit on New Covenant prophets and apostles, God’s Word to His people was clear and sufficient for their needs at any given time. This is obviously Jesus’ assumption when He challenged His hearers on numerous occasions, “Have you not read…? Is it not written…?” He never once said, “Have not the Scribes and lawyers taught…?” The rich man who had mistreated Lazarus begged Abraham that Lazarus go and warn his brothers about the place of torment in which he found himself. According to Jesus, Abraham wisely responded, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them…If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead” (see Lk. 16:27-31).
There is no need for placing church tradition or the church’s teaching office on a par with Scripture, much less for seeking sensational signs of divine authentication like Marian apparitions or dead popes’ blood with strange alleged physical qualities (cf. 1 Tim. 4:7). God has spoken, has spoken fully in His Son (Heb. 1:1-2), and has not stuttered. Because the inscripturated “Son-revelation” has been clear for centuries, we ought not to neglect the resources of our forefathers’ own meditations on it, but we may not place any human institution or authority alongside it as a source of revelation or another ultimate rule of faith.
How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said,
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?
Happy 500th Reformation Day!